Notes for Young Composers
1. Write a song that slices you down the middle. Neatly in two—one half for the bass, the other for the treble. Play it again and again, so it keeps dicing you into fractions. Into fourths and sixteenths and one-hundred-and-twenty-eighths, until there are too many parts for one piano. Become an orchestra every time you fall apart.
2. Smile when you find out you were born on the same day as Tchaikovsky. Buy a book of his most popular pieces arranged for piano. Remember the feel of tiny toes crammed into ballet shoes when you bounce your foot against the pedal. Love Tchaikovsky anyway.
3. After you’ve lived a year or so divided into symphony fractions, teach yourself a different song. It doesn’t have to be yours, but learn to play it, measure by measure, until every piece of you can fit onto one piano bench, if only long enough to get from the first note to the last. Learn the theme from E.T., and a Haydn concerto, and a self-arranged instrumentation of “Vienna.” Learn one song for every second of the day—all 86,400 of them—so you can keep yourself together, always.
4. Don’t forget to write the song that zips you back together for good.
5. Learn from your piano teacher that Tchaikovsky was miserable for most of his life, and discover first-hand that some music carries residual violence. Feel his sorrow, his hatred, his violence become your own the first time you play through the swan theme. See how some pianists know how to hold that violence between their fingers, and some know how to leave it in its rightful measures. The former are better at being pianists, the latter, at being human.
6. To be clear: you want to be the latter.
7. Write down the melody that plays in your head when you look at the girl with the seawater-green eyes. Once it’s notated, play it out loud. Keep it to yourself, though. It’s most beautiful when it’s kept between you and her, between you and the silence. It’s not the song that zips you together, but it’s a melody that wraps around all your wayward pieces and makes you feel whole for the next 64 measures. But only if you keep it for yourself.
8. The off-ward chapel has a keyboard that’s made of shiny black and white plastic and lined with fake velvet to make you think it’s real. To make you think it’s holy. When you pray, pray to something (you) made-up just to be spiteful. Tell your parents you found religion again. Ask to go off-ward the next day. When an expressionless nurse tells you no, run your fingers along the windowsill in your room in the shape of a sonata. It sounds like rainfall.
9. You still need to write the zip-you-together song.
10. Learn in your freshman Music Appreciation class that Tchaikovsky was gay like you. Feel upset that no one ever told you; feel your heart pressed against your chest like tiny toes in tiny ballet shoes. Tell your social worker you don’t want to be Catholic anymore. Stare with wide wet eyes as she tells you that you can’t be anything else. Listen to the swan theme and cry for the both of you.
11. You need to write that song.
12. When your mother brings you a notebook with staff paper, write out a melody without knowing how it will sound. Don’t ask to visit the off-ward chapel and the fake-holy piano; just write, just see the shape of the notes like stitches—back and forth and back and forth and back. When you’re discharged a week later, play the melody you wrote on your own piano. It sounds like rainfall, and absolutely nothing else.
13. Learn in your freshman Music Appreciation class that Tchaikovsky committed suicide.
14. Try to write the fucking song.
15. A few days after fall exams—when you’ve been living in one-twenty-eighths for the better part of a decade and playing on your own real-velvet piano for about a year—get drunk and slur your fingers down the keys. It sounds good; it sounds like the kind of water that sticks, that puddles. Fall asleep on the couch and wake up with a gasp, snatching at the notes even though they’re gone.
16. Play the seawater-eye song for another girl, with blue eyes. Play it for yourself. Play it for a boy with brown eyes. Play it for everyone you know and find out that not everyone thinks it’s beautiful. Accept that some people never will.
17. Ask yourself if there even is a zip-you-together song.
18. Give up music for years. Wonder if there’s a story you can write, or a poem that will shove you back together when you speak it aloud. Write a hundred stories, read a thousand poems. Become a filmmaker, a dancer, an actor, a painter; become every kind of person so you might become one person again.
19. Ask your mother to take you to see The Nutcracker at Christmastime like she did when you were small and put-together. When she says no, don’t go, even though you’re old enough to buy your own tickets. Instead, fall asleep to the Duke Ellington version and feel the arpeggios running up and down your spine like chills—the shudders of someone’s music shifting and stretching to belong to someone new. You can hear the bare bones of Pyotr’s violence, but the rest is Duke, his glittering sorrow and jazz-drunk love slipping in to fill the open spaces. Dream of your music becoming someone else’s, everyone else’s; dream of you chopped up into seven billionths, of your violence gently replaced with someone—everyone else’s. Wonder if Tchaikovsky could ever live while his music was his own.
20. Write a story where the protagonist loses a knuckle off her finger every time she tries to play her violin. Where, with one knuckle of one finger left, she manages a messy concerto and starts losing her toes. Wake up in sixty-fourths, in thirty-seconds.
21. Visit the church where you used to sing as a teenager. Run your finger over the piano and remember that it’s plastic, it’s that black and white plastic. There’s no velvet to make you think it’s real. You’re just supposed to believe it. Wonder if that’s why the music in church sounds like rainfall every time you go to Christmas or Easter mass. Wonder what the music would sound like if you didn’t know the piano was plastic.
22. Write one more song just after your 21st birthday. It teaches you how to live in eighths, if you can get there.
23. Smile when your grandmother (who does not know that skills stunt and stop developing after years of non-use) calls you Tchaikovsky reincarnated. Frown when you realize you have everything but his music and his death. Go still at the realization that you don’t want either anymore. Blink, and find yourself in sixteenths.
24. Curl your fingers into a sobbing fist when your mother asks about the girl with the blue eyes, asks how the seawater-eye song sounds these days. Unclench your fingers and tell her about all the girls and all the songs she didn’t know how to listen to until now.
25. Lift your hands to the piano as if the zip-you-together song is hanging off the pads of your fingers. Stay frozen like that for another month, maybe two.
26. Move into your sister’s house, the one with the player-piano and the closet full of paper rolls of Beatles songs, and sit on the floor as the piano plays itself. Whisper words of wisdom, and punch them into a paper roll. Let the piano play them. Let the piano tell you that it can still taste your residual violence, that it cannot forgive you the way your music can, and that your music cannot forgive you the way you can forgive yourself.
27. Put your fingers to keys. Play the song you needed to write—the black-and-white plastic rhythm turned soft, violent melody. Hear that violence burst free from its measures, from the spaces between your fingers, from the years you might have given away, and with one final chord, hear it fall from the air like raindrops. Then stand from the bench and pull yourself back into eighths and then fourths and bow as two separate pieces in front of a soundless audience, the way the music would never let you.